Cuba-Based Band Plays At White House – A First In 50 Years

The groovy sounds of a Cuba-based musical band wafted through the White House on Thursday for the first time in more than 50 years.

The Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club performed at a White House reception Thursday to mark Hispanic Heritage Month and the 25th anniversary of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.

Photo: Susan Walsh/AP
In the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

“It is wonderful to have you here. I was explaining to them that when the documentary about the Buena Vista Social Club came out, I was told it was around 1998, I bought a CD,” said President Barack Obama, who asked the audience to “give it up” for the group.

The White House said Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club was the first Cuba-based musical act to perform under its roof in more than five decades. The appearance came amid warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Cold War foes whose leaders surprised the world nearly a year ago with the announcement that they were restoring diplomatic relations after more than a half-century of animosity.

Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have met twice and have spoken by telephone since their stunning December announcement.

The Buena Vista Social Club started as a members’ only venue in the Marianao neighborhood of the Cuban capital of Havana for musicians and performers based on the island nation between the 1940s and early 1960s. In its heyday, the club encouraged and continued the development of traditional Afro-Cuban musical styles such as “son,” which is the root of salsa.

In the 1990s, after the club had closed, it inspired a recording made by Cuban musician Juan de Marcos Gonzalez and American guitarist Ry Cooder with traditional Cuban musicians.

After the death of some key members, Cuban singer and dancer Omara Portuondo; guitarist and vocalist Eliades Ochoa; Barbarito Torres, who plays the laud; trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal; and trombonist Jesus “Aguaje” Ramos began spreading Cuban music internationally as The Buena Vista Social Club.

The recording became an international success as the biggest-selling Cuban album in history.

The group is on a worldwide farewell tour.